Homeschooling: Learning… by heart

Homeschooling is a delightful alternative that many parents are discovering. So what makes it tick?

Father teaching his son in the laptop

For those unaware of the concept, homeschooling is as simple as the name suggests—schooling at home. That is all theres is to interpret—no semester exams or projects, like in schools.

Discovering the need to homeschool

The desire for parents to homeschool their children, comes from a range of reasons.

Some of them being the pressure to perform and be boxed into a group of the same age, no role model to follow, the non-personal touch of the school system and the wrong use of authority by teachers and school staff, which give children a wrong idea of authority.  Being a decision that will affect almost every aspect of your and your child’s life, during the learning years of your child, it’s one that has to be well thought over. Yet for some parents, this decision may come naturally like for Priya Desikan, who has a seven year old son, Raghav. “Our son requested flexibility in going to school, and of course with a regular school that did not work. So he said that he wanted to be home and I just went with my heart. I did not read or research much on homeschooling before we decided to pull him out of school, simply because he had already decided [and he was only 5 then]. I realised that he knew exactly what he wanted in life. So we listened to him instead. It was only after that I read Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society that we realised that we were part of an inspiring and loving community of homeschoolers in India,” says Priya.

For Mumbai based P. Aravinda, the sole inspiration to homeschool her daughter was the observant, inquisitive and eager-to-learn attitude of her child. But often parents may not see or let themselves see that the child’s innate curiosity will lead them to learn. In an earnest effort to prepare the child for school, parents modify even the home environment. However, when Aravinda’s daughter was young, though she had not thought about homeschooling, she was not thinking about schooling either, and thus kept the home environment free from eating and sleeping timetables, expectations of keeping clothes clean, need to recite and memorise shapes and colours.

She continued this way till her daughter was 5 years old, and in these years she had also been observing the neighbourhood children—most of whom had started schooling at age 3 or 4. They had spent a year before that preparing for the ‘interview’. “It was clearly difficult to imagine giving up what we had going for what the schools had to offer,” remarks Aravinda

Books such as How Children Learn by John Holt and Continuum Concept by John Liedloff, Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn, to name a few, exposed her to new ideas and also helped her discover that she was not alone in the way she interpreted what she was seeing. That emboldened her and she decided to foray into the inviting yet intimidating territory of homeschooling.

Certainly she isn’t alone going against the tide. Ann and Ashley Manning have a daughter aged 24 and a son aged 28. They were both homeschooled for about twelve years until they got certified for the Higher Secondary School Certificate [HSC] from National Institute of Open School [NIOS]. Ann and Ashley homeschooled because they believed that children are given to parents, for them to steward and bring up into mature adults, the home being their best environment and the best method of learning tutoring one-on-one.

The curriculum affair

Most homeschoolers use a mix of structured studies and unstructured studies. Some follow standard curriculum like NCERT, CBSE, IGCSE or Accelerated Christian Curriculum. Some do only those subjects in which the child has shown more interest. Some focus on the basic reading, writing and arithmetic while others stress on extra curricular activity and leave the child free to make her own curriculum. Some do not adhere to any structure at all. Learning for unschoolers happens very organically , slowly and internally. Often it is not visible or tangible, but if observed in continuity then one can easily observe the blossoming and learning happening uniquely with each child. My 6-year-old son, Ishaan learnt to count and recognise numbers from his surroundings which includes books, Internet, TV, films, drawing, painting, and outings with me. When I am reading a book, he comes to me and asks how many pages is the book and is happy when there are more than 500. He asks me number related questions like, how old is the earth, how many years ago did dinosaurs walk the earth, how old is India as a country, how many floors are there in our building, how many floors does the Empire State Buildings have, etc. Gourika, my 11-year-old daughter, reads fluently as she plays a lot of online games and looks up YouTube videos of films and music. Being a radical unschooler, I never taught my children to learn any of it… but I never stopped answering when they asked.

Deepali and Shankar from Mumbai, use as a guide, the Waldorf Education module for their daughter. “People who are new to homeschooling believe that without structure there can be no learning. We are not trying to recreate school at home. We just want to instill in our child, love for life-long learning, to be creative, to stand up for their rights and for the rights of others and to have a good judgment of right and wrong. It is very important to have a natural rhythm to your life. But not as hard as a cane school structure. Just like the rising/setting of the sun, our days flow easily and our life goes on smoothly,” explains Deepali.

Aravinda has a lovely take on following curriculum, she says, “A good curriculum is one that flows from our minds, through our conversations, back and forth to various experiences and ideas. We are following a curriculum but I don’t know if you would call it ‘fixed.’  I can observe that there is a structure, for example, my child often makes interesting connections and observations at some times/places, like in the bathroom, in the middle of the night, just before sleeping, soon after getting up, while playing with clay or blocks or water or sand, en route, while in train/bus. So as a family we like to allow for the conversations that spring forth at such times.”

Padma and Rajappa from Chennai have a son who is six and a daughter who is four, and they find that the most fulfilling aspect of homeschooling is that the whole family is in love with learning, learning is not limited by time, place or activity, it goes on wherever we are whatever we do. This family follows the principles of TJEd [www.tjed.org] as it suits their family. According to this educational philosophy, children aged 0 – 8 years are in Core Phase and are in their prime to learn the core values necessary for life. “With this in mind, we have been unschooling while applying principles from Montessori, Waldorf, Charlotte and Mason,” explains Padma.

Should a tutor be allowed to help?

Often some of the learning is also outsourced to tutors and mentors. Especially children who take exams spend a few hours each day with tutor mentors. Shailaja Karnam and her son Tarun Maudgalya run IGCSE mentorship centre in Hyderabad for homeschooled children who wish to take the O and A Level exams. They also prepare them for the certification and do all the needful paper work for the children. There are also a few international schools in Bangalore and Pune which allow candidates to take exams privately. For homeschooled children who wish to take Indian examinations the NIOS is the best options and many who have passed exams through this mode have taken admission into colleges in India. However with the implementations of the Right to Education Act, the possibility of NIOS being phased out in a stepped manner is being discussed. But there is still some ambiguity on this front and till the final decision one can continue with NIOS.

Like me most of the parents I know who have been unschooling their children are not worried about exams. They say they will cross the bridge if they need to or their children wish to go that way. But life and learning is about tuning in with new and creative livelihoods that are perhaps yet to be found. Some unschoolers do get into colleges and institutes when they set their minds to it.  Most unschoolers have a trust that their children since not so externally driven, dive deep into whatever they wish to pursue and find a way out.

The world of critiques and challenges

Every pioneer who has tried to do something that has never been done before or is far from the accepted ‘norm’ have in history of this planet faced challenges and it is never a cake walk for anyone who wants to tread on paths not walked before. Most homeschoolers will tell you how the very people who criticise them when they started with homeschooling end up praising and appreciating the decision. Deepali says, “When we initially started off on this path, we were met with lots of criticism. But over time, people have realised that we are serious about homeschooling and our child is a very happy, social, kind, loving girl who is equally at ease with children of her own age as well as adults.”

Anne says, “The biggest challenge we faced was from friends and family accusing us of messing with our children’s futures and lives. When our children’s friends accused them of not going to school, we helped our children handle such situations by giving them common sense answers like: We don’t go to school, but we have school at home. Building bonds with them which would never have happened if they had gone the regular way, spending 6 hours in school, 8 hours asleep, another 4 – 6 hours studying and us left with the dregs of their time, energy and motivation. Seeing them grow into people of character with right priorities and focus, a vision and dream for their lives and already on the way to fulfilling them, make us want to homeschool all over again.”

Challenges of facing the world and answering their questions may at times take a toll on your emotional wellbeing and balance in life. But from my experience I can tell that within a few years of learning with our kids and growing with them, one would often be treated as an inspiration.

For Priya the journey of usnchooling has been more of an exercise in self awareness and self knowledge. She says, “Every day poses a new challenge—of understanding oneself a little more, of being there with my child the way he wants me to, of getting out of my child’s way so that he can blossom the way he wants to, of unlearning what one has been conditioned to learn and conform to ever since one was born. To me, that is what this journey of ‘living and learning’ with my child is about. The greatest fear and challenge that I face every day is to let go of what my mind and heart are so used to clinging on to. The way I deal with both my fears and challenges is to try and look at what is happening without any coloured lens and look deep within myself. Very often, I have found that when I free myself of those old patterns and habits, I free my son.”

Aravinda's challenges are closer home as she feels, "My main challenge is that we don’t have enough other kids around to do things with but I am often amazed to see the way that thoughts flow according to their own course and inner curriculum."

Parenting challenges

Parents teaching their child at homeWhen in school teachers teach right from wrong. And wrong behaviour is always punished where as the same situation maybe dealt differently at home, for parents are always known to favour their child. This raises the problems of fostering the right behaviour in children, and strong conviction amongst parents is needed for its important in their core years to learn right from wrong.

The support system

With the world being critical of people who dared to tread away in a path that has never before been walked over, there are people and groups who can act as support systems. Sangeeta Chhabra who lives a completely ‘organic’ life at her eco-farm and has been homeschooling her daughter says, “Today there are many groups of homeschoolers and one can readily avail their support for numerous challenges. Unlike few years back, when we decided to homeschool our daughter Annica, me and my husband were the only black sheep doing it.”

Financial implications

Often, one may come across financial problems while educating their child, but with homeschooling the problem is almost no present since it’s a give and take relationship. Parents give the knowledge they possess. “A parent has to be 100 per cent sure, to homeschool their child; it cannot be 99.9 per cent. Since the compulsion for putting aside a certain amount for school is gone, nothing more than what you have in hand is needed,” says Sangeeta.

For areas where a child shows particular interest and the parent has not much expertise may only call for little to no monetary investment, for we can find a lot of passionate people around to teach no cost.

No matter what method parents adopt to homeschool their child, the underlying motive and intention is always to increase intimacy and bonding among family members and making learning in partnership with children the pivot. It is about increased self awareness and trusting in one’s inner voice.

“Seeing my children plan to homeschool their own kids when the time comes, because of the benefit they see it has for themselves,” says Ann, “is so fulfilling and rewarding that I would homeschool my children all over again if I was given a chance to.”

Homeschooling is challenging, but certainly these challenges are not looked as problems. And if one expects that this path will be without any challenges or obstacles; that will be quiet unrealistic.

Home-work for the parent

  1. Ask yourself if you are really ready to do it? Or you are just thinking about it?
  2. Trust yourself and trust the pace you go with. Not every child learns at the same pace
  3. Make sure you stay in a locality where there are many kids so that your child does not feel socially awkward to talk to people of his age group
  4. A parent need not be there 24x7 with the child. When you cook, the child would just sit on the platform and do things s/he likes, or help you out with small things. When you need to do some work, you can leave the child with other kids to play.

This was first published in the December 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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